Trouble-free Meals Start with Paper, not a Pan

When Chad and I started 40 By 40, I agreed to be the menu planner, shopper, and for the vast majority of the time, the chef. I have always been a shopping-list-maker, but I really had to step up my game in order to be able to have meals and snacks at the ready, because Chad, and to some degree all of us, are more likely to make bad choices if there isn’t something already planned for our meal or snack. (Haven’t we all had good intentions about what to have for lunch? But without the food present, when it comes time, we order one of the unhealthy choices, or we super-size, which can make any meal vault over a respectable calorie limit.)

I often talk with people who, granted, are much busier than I am. They have children and/or time-consuming jobs, and to suggest blocking off some time, even 15 minutes, to look through both the upcoming calendars and the pantry in order to plan meals can seem either silly or extravagant. But, as I can attest to, the time spent in planning can help avoid time-sucking problems that can drive any cook out of the kitchen and to the drive-through! For example, getting home from work and having to venture back out to pick up a crucial ingredient, since you have NO back up menu and your cupboard is bare. (Of course, its usually dark, cold and raining or snowing when this occurs!)

After a couple months of refining my routine, there are two tools that I use which have kept me organized, made shopping trips quicker, and my cooking (almost) trouble free.

“40 By 40” Weekly Meal Planner: gets filled out and kept on the fridge…very helpful!

1. A Weekly Planner: Since we can have dinner anywhere between 6 and 9 PM, and if Chad is at a game or meeting I may even be eating alone, it saves me a lot of stress (and perhaps even avoids a few arguments) when we go over our week in advance. At some point during the weekend, we spend 5-10 minutes going over our upcoming week. I find out what groceries he needs for breakfast and snacks, which days he needs lunch packed, and what time I might want to plan to serve dinner. (Since this does not take too much time, we can usually get this done while watching TV…and I’m sure most people have some favorite reality TV that can be “multi-tasked” by also sketching out a menu!)

2. A Shopping List: Being a complete food dork and a general list-maker, I have always made grocery lists, but in order to walk the line between overbuying, which might eventually lead to spoiled food and wasted money, and not having what I need when I need it, I have had to move on to “advanced list making.”

A fancy, formatted template doesn’t work for me. I just use a legal pad, so I have lots of room.

After deciding which meals to make and when we will have them, I plan out my shopping list, using the name of the dish as a header. I list the items that I need to make it, and when those are crossed off, I still have a list of all the things I can make, so I never have to say, “I have nothing to make, we have to order out!” (Since there are odds and ends and non-food items to buy, I also keep a more traditional list in the second column. Also, if I have something I need to use up, sometimes I put that down to remind me, so I don’t buy more of that or forget to make something with it that week.)

This all may sound a little “Donna Reed,” but by getting all the details out of the way, I have the ingredients and time I need to do some stress-free cooking, and that’s the first step to enjoying your time in the kitchen, without spending extra time there! (Since I also work a bit, myself.) Also, since I know how hard Chad is working on his end of the project–how could you lose 25 # without working hard–my job is easy in comparison. I have a pretty sweet deal; I get to cook and eat and watch my husband achieve amazing things!

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